Something I drew during the intense pain of a back injury, between emergency room visits and downing as many pain pills as was safe to swallow. Drawn as the dollars I owed the health system multiplied like jackpot totals above a slot machine. Drawn when it was uncertain just how much my life would be permanently impaired.
One simple decision ruined my life for months, perhaps years, to come. I was scheduled to perform a song I wrote for a museum exhibit on a Friday night in April. I was staying with a friend on the Thursday before. She was hosting a show at her house, had a band travelling from Washington, and I was set to play too at this house show.
My right shoulder had been aching fiercely for a couple weeks at this point. A doctor thought I had bursitis in the shoulder, and sent me home with some diclofenac for anti-inflammation. The diclofenac did absolutely nothing. I remember cooking a chicken and carrot stir fry for dinner one night. The stirring motion alone was almost enough to make me cry. My arm was weak and practically useless.
What I should have done at this point, when I had a huge guitar amplifier to carry to my car, was phone a friend and have them help given the state of my shoulder. What I did instead was assume I could still handle it with my non-dominant arm. I ended up twisting and contorting half-falling down some steps.
I got the amplifier and everything loaded in my car, yet my back immediately hurt badly. At first, I did not realize the severity of the injury. I drove to work hoping it would be one of those things that was sore for a day and gone.
By the end of the work day, I was having a hard time walking. Yet I agreed to play these two shows, and I take giving my word on a gig seriously. I took some motrin and drove to my friend’s house. Some combination of motrin and alcohol got me through my set. I remember being in pain but not an intolerable amount. It was a pleasant night with friends. I slept on the floor of the living room. It hurt somewhat but was not the painsomnia that would come later.
The next day my back hurt tremendously. Just getting in the car was a struggle. Yet after limbering up and taking 800 mg of motrin I was moving around. No way I could even carry my equipment with how badly I was hurt at this point. A friend and fellow musician was nice enough to play roadie. He got my amplifiers into the venue. I still had to crawl around and hook up the guitar pedals for this ambient, post-rock-ish song I contributed. Every motion felt like getting stabbed with a sword on my left side.
I could barely stand, the 10 pounds of strapped on guitar felt like a mountain weighing me down. It hurt so much. Yet I focused and got through it. The performance was not my best yet also was not my worst. Afterwards in the hotel room I began to realize just how injured I was. Laying on the bed, I was unable to get back up. Every time I turned it would hurt so bad it was impossible to fight through. I could not move. So I went to sleep.
Somehow I fell asleep yet did not wake up any better. Muscles from my back hip down through my toes would not unclench. It felt like fire. That was when I learned what sciatica was. First thing I did was find an Urgent Care clinic that was open. I made it out of bed and to the clinic.
I found then if you have back pain, doctors assume more often than not you’re some kind of addict looking to score pain meds. First thing the Urgent Care clinic told me was they don’t prescribe narcotics. Urgent Care is not great for getting to the root cause of anything. Their main concern seems to be patching you up just enough to send you on your way. They gave me a shot of demerol and a prescription for muscle relaxers, and did just that, sent me back into the world.
The demerol worked for several hours, yet then I was in a worse state than I already had been. I was starting to become stomach sick as well, either due to catching something, or maybe just through all the pain meds and muscle relaxers I was on at the time. It was not a fun time to be alive. I was still in denial about how badly I was hurt, tried to go to a punk concert. Realized halfway through that maybe this would be a long term, serious thing when the demerol began to wear off. Drove the hour and a half home. I can remember just screaming in pain most of the way home, it hurt that much to sit in the car.
I managed through some concoction of stubborn will and pain meds to play music and get through the weekend but utterly crashed once home. I could barely move. Every second just hurt. My days only consisted of moving from the bed to the couch. Lying awake sometimes 36 hours, until my exhaustion outpaced my pain, and I could sleep.
I hit the emergency room every other night during this time. I did not want to go. Yet it hurt so much, I didn’t know what else to do but limp to my car, scream in pain at the sheer torture that was bending and sitting, and limp into the ER. The doctors were stingy with any kind of pain meds. It took a miracle to get a tramadol prescription. Then it took another miracle and a doctor I had known since I was 5 years old to get a hydrocodone prescription.
The pain meds did not do much. For weeks, I lived for the intervals I could take more pills. They brought the pain down from not wanting to live anymore bad to just severe and debilitating bad. The doctors would not do much for me at this time. They have a whole timetable for escalation that is absolutely aggravating when you feel like death would be preferable to the state of your body with a back injury. They would not send me for an MRI, really dragged their feet on that. Instead insisting I complete 6 weeks of physical therapy before an MRI was a possibility.
The people at physical therapy were nice enough but physical therapy was an utter joke for the state my body was in at the time. My first appointment, I had to get new tires on my car. So I walked to the hospital, leaving my car at the tire shop about two blocks away. I practically crawled through the door of the hospital. I went through their core exercises and began to practice them. However, it was obvious to me at least that I was injured far beyond the extent that physical therapy could help with.
Everyone I mentioned my back problems with had a well-intentioned though unsolicited and ultimately obnoxious suggestion of seeing a chiropractor. I did a few times. Like the demerol shot, it seemed to help things for a couple hours. Then everything was back to excruciating pain.
It took hitting the ER at 2 AM for the 4th or 5th time before the doctors finally arranged for me to get an MRI. I think whoever was on call was just sick of getting rolled out of bed at that hour.
It cannot be overstated how happy I was when an MRI was finally authorized. They dragged their feet so much on that. Until then I was in this limbo where I knew something was severely wrong but I had no idea the extent of the problem, and seemed light years away from any kind of tangible solution. I did not know if this horrible back pain would be with me the rest of my life. I did not know if I should start preparing to be on disability. I did not know if I could expect any kind of recovery. The MRI was something that would have concrete answers in the midst of all that uncertainty.
I got the MRI. Turned out I had a herniated L5/S1 disc that was impinging the sciatic nerve with some bulging on the L4. They scheduled me for epidural spinal injections.
Yet a funny thing happened during the waiting for the epidural injections. I started to recover somewhat. It was slow. Yet I started to need my pain medication less. I began to walk short distances using a cane. Until now, I could not even stand long enough to cook meals at a stove anymore. I began to be able to cook again. Still severely impaired, and very much in pain, but noticeably better. After reading about arachnoiditis, an awful, painful condition that sometimes occurs when the lining of the spine is pierced, combined with finally starting to not hurt so much, I decided against the epidural injections. I would see how much I could recover on my own.
Since my job requires a 45 minute commute either way, I burned almost all my leave time. The hardest thing for me that hurt the most was the bending motion to get inside a car, then sitting for more than 5 minutes in the car caused horrible pain. I tried all sorts of absurd tricks, like sitting on a tennis ball, getting special lumbar cushions. It all helped a little bit but couldn’t entirely solve or mask that I was severely injured.
I remember it was a eureka moment when I regained most of the feeling in my right foot. Until then it had all gone numb, and I more or less dragged that foot behind me as I walked. I started to regain a bit of strength week by week. Up to a point anyway.
Now about 3 and a half months since my injury recovery seems to have plateaued. I would estimate my right side is about 60% what it used to be. I have some major limitations on how far I can walk and how much I can lift. Yet I’m not in pain anymore. Sciatica has mostly subsided except for a nagging feeling of something caught under my toes occasionally. It does not hurt to bend or sit in a car anymore. It is not ideal or even a tolerable baseline to live at. Yet compared to when I was hitting the emergency room every other night and half my diet was pain pills, I’m doing a lot better.
I’ll probably need surgery eventually if I’m going to get back anywhere close to 100%. But for now, I can make my physical state work. It doesn’t hurt so much, but the weakness, and the locking up after overdoing it gets cloying.
Like all things in a capitalist system, most aspects of this injury revolve around money. If I had the money, I’d get the surgery tomorrow. In an ideal world, it could be scheduled and over with by now. Yet due to insurance regulations, burning so much leave at my job and everything else, it’s looking like it will at least be 2018 (optimistically) before I can be fully fixed. This injury almost wiped me out, physically, psychologically, financially, you name it.
I’m certainly more skeptical of the American healthcare system because of this back injury. I am sickened by how commodified healthcare is in this country. At numerous points, I felt my doctors were not making decisions based on what was best for me, but on following checklists the insurance company set out for them. It costs so much to get sick or injured in America. ER visits, specialist visits, the gas to drive to see the specialist, medications, physical therapy, more doctors visits, all those bills, even with decent insurance, add up. Hospital bills quickly turn into an avalanche that bury all but the most wealthy.
I was better positioned than many to weather a medical hardship. My job is fairly accommodating, I have insurance, I’m somewhere middle of middle-class income. Even then I feel like I barely pulled through this without losing my job, which would have meant the loss of my insurance too, and then no way to pay for anything medical. What is anyone with a less accommodating job, no insurance, and little income supposed to do? Just fall through the cracks of society and die? It’s sickening that due to greed and corporate monopoly of healthcare, the answer in America to that question seems to be a tacit “yes” though scarcely anyone will admit it out loud.
I am an outsider. A feeling of being an alien crash landed in a strange dimension pervades nearly all facets of my trying to be part of the human social organism. I can relate to some human individuals. Yet being part of a group is endlessly perplexing. Being a part of a collective is never seamless. Entering any herd is fraught with frustration, anxiety and difficulty. Belonging to anything is not something that seems natural to me.
(Seneca, Hercules Furens, Act 5)
Like those lines in Seneca’s play, I am so confused much of the time with the absurdity of waking up alive in this time and place. Alienation can be big as finding little resonance in anything about society, not belonging anywhere on planet Earth. Though alienation persists through every small level too. Out of place among any group of 3, 4, 5 people like some important part of myself has to be chopped off just to fit in.
“Well, find the right group” tends to be the easy answer. Not like I have not tried. I’ve been all across America. Ran with everyone from homeless punks, to artists, to technology business people, to theologians & philosophers, to bohemian writers, to 9-to-5 blue collar workers, to school teachers, people of various cultures, aims and values. Some individuals of all those categories meant something in my life. Groups that would form around those occupations and artistic inclinations were at times mutually useful, worthy of some participation.
Yet in every instance I didn’t belong. I didn’t fit. I could never merge my identity or find a consistent place in any group. More than finding a particular right group, the issue is probably with my orientation toward groups in general. I’m ever the outsider. I’m ever the stranger.
“When Plato said that if I’d gone to the Sicilian court as I was invited, I wouldn’t have to wash lettuce for a living, I replied that if he washed lettuce for a living, he wouldn’t have had to go to the Sicilian court.”
(Diogenes of Sinope)
That quote from Diogenes captures the essence of why I tend to be a loner in my endeavors. Why I tend to remain independent and D-I-Y sometimes to the bafflement of others. Its not that I don’t want to belong. Its not that I don’t want to play my music in big important places or publish my writing on more than a wordpress site or haven’t occasionally found a happy compromise. But usually, I have to take the scissors to much of myself in exchange for access to big important things. And even if I wanted to I can’t. I’m unequipped to lie in Procrustean beds. I am either utterly silent, ghost like and void. Or I am full and raw and pouring everything I have into my words even if it reaches a pitch some find too intense.
Almost always, someone vying for some kind of power within a group hierarchy sees me as a threat. Every microkingdom, no matter how small or insignificant, has a weird hierarchy I seem to offend. Even if no one is threatened I just don’t know how to be part of a group. I seem to have no place so I end up undertaking everything alone. For a long time I thought people saw no value in anything I could possibly bring to their collective. Now I think it has more to do with being idiosyncratic in many of my methodologies. Even if a group or person(s) wants to work with me, it is often quite perplexing to us both how I might possibly fit some group or project.
Typically I’m not looking to upset any kind of status quo. Despite becoming something of a leader the last several years I am severely introverted. I get no energy or thrill from people. Being involved is utterly draining so I have to choose my battles carefully. Socializing takes up so much energy for me. Being present in a way that is engaged burns so much mental and emotional fuel. Many times socializing or being part of something is not worth the cost. I’d rather be a ghost passing through, silent, untouching.
I also have no attachment to any image of myself as some rugged individualist. I would rather community, being part of groups, came more naturally to me. I have no attachment to myself as some kind of contrarian. Though I’ll stand steadfast on what I think is rational, ethical, or just, even if my conceptions seem different from many people. Too many people I meet merely take the fact a thing has existed the way it has for a long time as justification for it continuing to exist that way. Too many people I meet gain some benefit from the way a system has been set up so argue for that system out of inertia. I end up being the contrarian because none of this seems self-evident or inevitable or particularly good to me. I have no love for this image of myself as someone who challenges people and ideas. Honestly, I wish society were such I never felt a need to challenge anything. I wish everything was working and I didn’t have to point out all the minds, bodies and souls getting mangled in the gearworks. I wish no one were falling through the cracks of society — cracks that are a succession of Marianas Trench sized abysses if you are looking closely. I wish I knew people who were dedicated to the same things as me, felt like the same things were important.
I always seem to find trouble. Wherever I am people never fail to project strange illusions of their own misunderstanding onto me. Because I am quiet some assume I am dumb and think they can verbally and intellectually dominate me. Some think because I have no interest in climbing hierarchies that I don’t see all their obsessive machinations to ascend the ladders. Some assume I am passive because I find many things not worthy of caring, then find I am absolute and nearly unmovable when it comes to anything I think matters.
Many find me unsettling for the sole reason I utterly evade their efforts to figure me out. And I evade those efforts not by trying to be evasive, but by just…existing as who I am. People get so attached to their theories about others. Its unsettling when those theories collapse. Even when those theories were built on not much more than a handful of prejudices, surface deep assessment, and over reliance on archetypes and stereotypes. Nothing I’m about or who I am was ever hidden to anyone with deeper vision to see.
As someone who has rarely belonged anywhere in the nearly thirty years I’ve spent on planet Earth I relate to this fragment of poetry.
(Mark Strand, Keeping Things Whole)
We live in an age where so much value is placed on being unique. Everyone trying to be their own special flavor. Oftentimes the ideology is old, the mentalities canned and boring — but wait, the ideology is now dressed in anchovies so its new. The stuffy mentality of yesteryear is coated with cinnamon and sugar, or now donning a colorful tie — please find it unique and interesting.
I’m not sure most people desire true uniqueness, much as many venerate this ideal of the unique individual. It is often painful to be unable to fit into a group. It is often frustrating to be alien to everything that seems so self-evident and natural to others, and have to find some way of entering that norm because you can’t do everything alone. When you are the outsider, you are often the first to be sacrificed to circumstance. Many people find you fascinating for a moment, but eventually too far outside their experience. Most people live their lives by inertia, and have small space for the stranger, a small space that is ever vanishing.
I never had much of a choice in being an alien on this Earth. I was born to a strangely mixed couple, different races and cultures. Those differences led to my parents divorcing but stay forever entwined in my veins, two disparate worlds I had to find some way within. I was never someone in whom image and essence found much congruence. Physically I’ve always looked like a behemoth. Mentally I’ve always been more poet, artist, reclusive hermit among the library archives. Its truly amazing how much that physical and intellectual incongruence throws off so many people. I also just seem to be idiosyncratic and have my own way of doing things. If I had the ability to go back to being 6 years old, I might insist on being tested for some psychologically misaligned reason for all this. At the age of 30 a diagnosis wouldn’t matter either way. I’ve navigated my own path, odd, twisted and unorthodox as it may look through education, career, life.
Speaking on protests in North Dakota staged at Standing Rock reservation over the construction of the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline, American Indian Movement leader Dennis Banks had this to say:
When they threaten the environment, they’re threatening you. We are part mountain. We are part ocean. We are part river. We are part flower and grass and tree. All of this, we are part of all of it, so that when they threaten the environment anyplace, they’re threatening you.
In one sense, nothing could be more unalienable and self-explanatory. Human beings exist within a great chain of multisplendent flora & fauna, within a wonderful array of seismic, hydrological, chemical, meteorological, climatological processes. As a species, we are inside everything in nature and outside nothing. Dial any of nature’s processes up or down even slightly and human existence, human society, human civilization faces massive change and disruption.
We need the sun. Our planet’s distance from the sun provides a temperature range where life can flourish. The sun provides energy for plants to metabolize through photosynthesis. No ecosystem exists without plants, and without plants every other being tumbles into non-existence, there being no sources of food for anything living. We need the land in a state of arability so we can grow or farm. Without rich topsoil to grow things, famine rules the land. We need water, clean and drinkable, non-toxic to the biology of everything from a plant to a person. Any person goes without water about three days, they will die. We need every step of the ecosystem, the various creatures and plants, in so many ways. Ways often unforeseen but crucial — just look what the extinction of bees may do to the entire earthly system of life.
I cannot make this point enough: we are nature. We are inside of it all. We are a part of it all. Our existence as human beings depends on and is affected by every process and living entity that collected together we call nature.
Again in one sense, nothing could be more unalienable and self-explanatory. Yet in another sense, in a sense that may be the default view of technological, industrial society, no concept is more alien and hard to understand than our own human connectedness to nature.
Many of us live in a world abstracted from nature. Intellectually, we could assent to the fact that we would die without water, that we need a cornucopia of sustenance from the soil to be healthy, that breathing air burdened by a thousand toxins will kill us if not immediately then probably of some kind of cancer as our years in the poisoned air accumulate.
Yet many of us, especially in the modernized industrial world, are removed several layers from the necessity and vitality of nature that under girds our everything as human beings. These basic facts of human existence remain merely an intellectual thing. As if we are several stories up a massive tower, where it is hard to even see miles below to the foundation our whole structure depends upon. We can logically assent to there being a foundation, but often don’t connect with it in a way that registers as being of high importance.
The cause and effect is not so easy to see when we live in glass and concrete megaliths, surrounded by so many miracles of the progression of knowledge and science. Our electrical girds, modern medicine, blocks of asphalt, the domicile cellworks of apartments and suburbs, the water that appears from the tap almost as if magic, seemingly infinite and summoned with ease, the grocery store housing every variety of food, it all has an obscuring effect on much of society. It is hard to see our human roots in the water, earth and air through so many abstractions of convenience.
This fog of abstractions is so thick that many people simply cannot see through it and ask questions like: why would you fight an oil pipeline? And the answer is simple, yet perhaps needs reiteration: because it could poison the water, and water is life. What would any of us be without clean water? Water is a foundation and every single other thing we may stand for topples without clean water to drink. Our human communities are not separate from their most foundational needs for water, air and soil. The roots might be hard to see, as far advanced into the rarefied clouds propelled by technology and progress that we have risen. Yet sever those roots of water, earth and air, and all of this comes crashing down quickly. We eventually find we are part of the chain we are so determined to poison and dominate.
In a sense, this should not need to be explained. Yet the fog of abstractions has removed many of us so far from the viscerality of the natural world human communities are inextricably dependent on. So I think maybe some benefit exists in going back to step one: we are nature. Our communities are nature. Our well being will forever be tied with the health of the rivers, the oceans, the mountains, the forests, the soil.
Until the day comes where we can drink toxic potpourri instead of water, where we can subsist on desertification rather than fruits of the earth, where we can breathe the contents of poison smog instead of air, then we need to care about what happens to all these things. For the sake of ourselves, for the sake of our families and communities, and for the sake of the generations that will follow us.
And for all the technological marvels and wonderment this society has bestowed on its inhabitants there is one place I think it has often significantly erred. That error is viewing humankind as separate from all the naturalistic processes we are always and have always been encompassed within. It is foolish to think we can destroy or pollute with impunity and think it will not eventually come back around to hurt us most of all. For how backward and primitive industrial society thought Native Americans were throughout history, many Natives understood this basic human connectedness to the natural world, like this quote from Chief Seattle illustrates:
All things are bound together. All things connect. Whatever happens to the Earth happens to the children of the Earth. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. (Chief Seattle)
To come full circle to what is occurring right now at Standing Rock, and many frontlines for indigenous struggles around the world, I think many of us retain some understanding of this basic truth of connectedness. Even if we walk in two worlds, and adopt some of the technological world to fit our current situations, we still understand our communities will suffer and die if the natural world is poisoned, if the clean air, water and soil is allowed to be desecrated with toxins.
Though it may be hard to see beyond the fog of all the abstractions of convenience, I wish more people would try to connect with those basic necessities of water, soil and air. Realize how important they are to protect. How much more infinitely precious they are than the temporary monetary gains of a handful of persons at the top of an oil corporation.
It is not just an indigenous issue or struggle, though it tends to affect us lopsidedly as we are toward the bottom of society and seen as an acceptable place to offload the risks of these oil ventures. It is something that affects everyone, as soon as they see past the fog, and realize the foundation every human thing rests upon, that the air, water and soil is everything.
Contrary to the opinion of some I don’t get high on fire. I take no joy in pushing collapsing things toward their doom. Destruction, even of what deserves to be destroyed, is no cause for elation. I do not spit acid for the sake of burning scatter shots in the fabric of everything good.
Sometimes I am asked: why do I not talk about the things I love? Why am I taking aim at something all the time? Why am I destroying rather than building?
Yet the question “what do you love?” is an indicator someone has not been reading or listening closely. Even at my most acerbic there is love. My discontent has its roots in love.
I’ll quote a song by Remember Me Feral that resonates with me:
“People often mistake the spirit of resistance. They see it as anger and hatred, and imagine its taste to be bitter. But resistance is founded in love. We find some things so beautiful, and love them so deeply, so urgently, that when we identify systemic oppression that endangers them, we must resist. People often misjudge this motivation, and feel it is a personal attack on them as individuals. But resistance is not something to be feared or to hold disdain for. Resistance is a passionate movement for the preservation of beauty.”
Though not in the least mysterious, leavened through absolutely everything as I think it is, I have no problem answering that question “what do you love?” directly.
I love the land. I love the soil underneath me. I love the air surrounding me. I love the water and the nourishment it gives. I love the sun. I love all the iterations and tonalities of light. I love the darkness, the dusken autumnal winds. I love the sunrise, the sunset, and starry night sky. I love the heat of summer, even as it incites wildfires that clog the sky with acrid smoke. I love the winter, even as its blizzards swarm the roads I must travel with ice. The land is so beautiful. Even as it is lethal, towering above and beyond me, liable to snuff out my existence with with even its gentle roiling.
I love the seasons. I love the cycles of the land coursing through history without botherment. I love the creatures. Their struggle, their formation, how they fit their environments, how they make what they can of their brevity. I love their beautiful ephemerality. I love the million skulls and skeletons cradled by dust where they fell. I love the plants. I love the grass, sunbleached, or green and pregnant with rain. I love the trees, tall and venerable, casting shadows. I love that the earth is not a dead place. Nearly everywhere you step there is life.
Loving this land, why should I not oppose the pipelines that will cut across the purity of water with their oil poison? Why should I not oppose the efforts to extract the uranium poison that is the most lethal substance humankind has ever known? Why should I not lament all the old things that used to grow, but have gone nearly extinct in the last hundred years or so? Why should I have any respect for the systematic exploitation and destruction of this beauty for the profiteering of a miniscule few on top of the capitalist pyramid?
I’m on the side of the pine forests, the porcupines, the prairie flowers, the aquifers, the rivers, the springs. And I think this is a foolish world that does not realize destroying flora, fauna, and multitudes of biomes, we will ultimately destroy ourselves.
If it is unclear where I stand, or where my opposition comes from, let it no longer be a mystery. Let it be said here without obfuscation.
I love where I am from, the Pine Ridge Indian reservation, the Oglala Lakota. I love our history. I love our resilience. i love our values and philosophy. I love how many persons make it through a stacked deck of adversity. I love how many are not broken, despite having so many institutions of bureaucratic red tape, forces of systematic enfeeblement, working against them. I love it when my people smile and joke. If they smile through teeth broken through the inadequate care of the Indian Health Services system, that is all the more beautiful, emblematic of a deep resilience.
Contending with alcoholism, with dysfunctional family environments, with a lack of opportunity, with a whole community fallen through the cracks of America, with historical trauma — I love how many triumph. I love how many Lakota I meet ripe with genius. Whether gifted artistically, musically, in the industrial arts, or in the sciences, in the legal professions, or being stellar human beings who care and uplift everyone around them. I love that we are still here despite two hundred years of quarantine, placed in political structures never built for our success but instead built for our failure and ignominy. I drive down highway 18, and I see Lakota youth, runners getting ready for the track season. It fills me with such pride. I am so glad to see anyone doing anything positive for themselves and for their community. I am glad to see elders recording their stories, see how much love they have for the art of storytelling. I am glad to see youth enroll in education to seek a better world and solutions to all the problems we face. I love how easy it is to connect with persons from indigenous communities all over the world, how similar and intersected our struggles tend to be. How I wish I had more power, to put it all right.
Loving these communities, these people, my family, my friends, how could I not stand against the caricatures, the straw Indians, the ignorance, the blind hatred, the oblvious invisibility, the prejudice, the whitewashed lying rosiness of American history? How can I not stand against the continued erasure, exploitation and subjugation? I’m going to let the voiceless inhabit my marrow and have their say. I’ll remember in a world of forgetting because who else will? When police use the shotgun for execution against an unarmed Native, and next week find the beanbags to subdue an armed white guy I’ll stand against it. When uncaring far off bureaucracies try to defund everything that helps, try to terminate us through attrition I’ll be there opposing it. When oil and uranium companies view Natives as an acceptable sacrifice for the profiteering of their greed, I’ll be there, ready to cut off the head of any poisonous snakes that try to pass. When the bordertown cowboys, prairie ignorant, want someone to look down on, want to mock Natives, merely so someone will be at the bottom of American society other than them I will speak up against it wherever I encounter it. When shady preachers and non-profits see they can quench their lust for dollars by exploiting our poverty and need, I’ll call it out where I see it. If that makes someone uncomfortable they can go ahead and be uncomfortable.
I love every pocket of life, of compassion, of creativity, of escape from the status quo that I find in the anxious, ever creeping, all consuming, prosaic, apathy loving, inhumane uniformity of American society. I love the human connection of two vastly different persons that should be isolated in separate cells by their socio-economic status, finding some commonality, breaking invisible barriers. Even friendship is revolutionary sometimes. I love the woman who can take a moment out of her busy day, the rat race of money gathering and needing to pass exams, to appreciate a song, a piece of writing. I love the street art that blankets alleys of business districts. I love the anarchy symbol on a light post in front of the bank. I love the underworld, the echoes of its vibrancy, its whispers that all is not dead and drab. I love when persons begin to see each other, not as objects in the metropolitan monolith, but as tangible persons, teeming with real breath. I love when communities begin to question the myths that nothing can ever change and that they are powerless. I love when persons start to see each other as non-disposable, not easily discarded, not merely means to some greedy end. I love passion. I love when someone is not too cool to care. I love when someone comes out of the cocoon of their sneering to be vulnerable enough to have their heart eviscerated by the insanity of these ways of life. I love when someone is unashamed of carrying the scars of everything.
Loving all not afflicted with the disease of prosaic, consumerist, authoritarian dictated systematic uniformity, how could I not declare the emptiness of all we find ourselves ensconced within? From Atlantic to Pacific, I have not found hardly anyone happy. It is the same worries, the same worker drone imprisonment, lavish yet desolate, the same sad stories of existential lament and unfulfillment howled over and over again. Everyone wants this harmony and contentment in their lives but most seem to have forgotten how to treat one another, have forgotten anything other than ways of disharmony. I stand against it and am glad to find anyone doing the same. Even if it is something so monolithic and huge it is hard to name or label with a description you know resistance when you see it.
Even at my most critical when I seem venomous and high on fire to some, I may be spitting acid, yet it will be in service of love to things I value, things I find beautiful. I don’t think any of this was ever hidden, or mysterious. Pay attention and what I love was shouted loudly in every polemic I ever wrote, every criticism I ever lobbed, every ideological fight I ever entered. Yet here it is said as straightforward as possible, if somehow someone missed it.
To end, let’s look at that line from the Remember Me Feral song again:
“Resistance is a passionate movement for the preservation of beauty.”
I reside, and always have resided, within a land some call the USA. I do not feel like I belong here. 29 years here, and I travel these pothole highways estranged.
I have been soaked in temperate rainforest downpour in the old Duwamish lands. I have watched the sun rise over the waters of Coeur d’Alene. I have seen the Montana cornucopia of wildflowers fold into kaleidoscopes of color from a bus window. My feet have touched the badlands sandstone, the sandhill remnants of the ancient inland sea of the Dakotas. I have wandered the ripe cornfields of Iowa. I have searched for a job in the lake effect blizzards of Michigan. I have drove the Massachusetts coastline, peeking through sleepy used book and record stores. A cold seeping through layers of winter wear to bite my skin.
Atlantic to Pacific could be, and maybe once was, a beautiful land. But today, everywhere, it is a place of poisoning, alienation, and asphalt uniformity. The ghosts of what used to be haunt my every step in America. And I am not enamored with the new world taking over. The new world looks like ruin to me, even though it is supposed to be progress.
America is forest and clay, ocean and mountain, scarred by concrete, choked by smog. Everywhere you go there is cellophane and glass. Everywhere something beautiful is dying for the sake of more cold corporatized uniformity. Water supplies are poisoned by oil, uranium, sludges from coal mines. Usually the water of the rural and poor are the blood sacrifice to these poisonous profiteers.
America is such a lonely place. Everyone is so segmented, stratified by class. There are so many invisible lines, infinitely subdividing us all, until we can scarcely even relate to another human being. American life is almost a series of transparent isolation chambers. Always surrounded by neighbors, by throngs of people, by classmates, by coworkers, yet almost always alone.
America is a place where human automation has replaced humanity. So many cells on roadway grids, leading to jobs most find no fulfillment in. Sometimes enough money to get by, but never enough to break a cycle of subservience. Sometimes not enough to get by, and just existing costs an astronomical sum in America.
I look at our vast arsenal of death, the bombs, the arms, our ever booming industries crafting new novelties of human dismemberment and obliteration. It seems so utterly senseless, and bound to backfire. Like monkeys playing with atom bombs.
The whole system always seemed rigged. A pyramid barge floating on a river of blood, built from the bones of numerous atrocities. With enough hypocrisy to say we stand for things like justice for all, to try to play world arbiter. Sucking dry the world marrow, and calling it liberation, bringing democracy, humanitarianism.
Decadent skyscraping luxury and wealth everywhere. While people freeze to death homeless in the cold huddled next to these monoliths of wealth. Such disparity, all fed by the lie that if you work hard enough you can earn your ticket to the decadence feast.
I could name so much more wrong. So much more that makes me sick, has me going down the highway thinking “how the fuck did this come to be? Who thought this was a good or satisfactory way of life?” But I would have to write a book, or a whole volume of literature, to get at the root of my discontent.
And I am filled with discontent. Condescending parrots mimicked the apologetic for this system to me when I was younger. Assured me I would grow out of my thinking, that I would see things their way. Everything was ok with this place called America, and I was wrong, what I experienced was wrong, what I looked around and saw was wrong.
Yet my discontent only grows as I age. And I am more convicted of a sense of fundamental wrongness. I am more an alien, in a strange land, that seems governed and structured so irrationally, so cruel, so backward, and corrupt.
And nothing seems to change, from where I take it all in.
Conservative politicians openly advocate for the misery of most the population. Pretending to stand for fiscal responsibility, while shovelling millions out to their crony industries. Austerity for the poor, yet every day is welfare day for lobbyists, industry, upper class. Selling this agenda through propaganda of bootstrap tough talk, cynical religious appeals, xenophobic fearmongering. The old hegemony and dying worldviews, everything backwards and outdated, clutching to a ledge overstretching a dustbin of irrelevance.
Liberal politicians talk, but never do much. They come around Native American reservations, making promises. Then get in office and sign Native lands away to oil pipelines owned by foreign corporations. They come around promising education and solutions to the poor neighborhoods and communities. Then get in office, and its more school to prison pipelines. More toxic, institutionalized brutality as jackboot cops murder with impunity, and use race and poverty as target practice for abuse. They promise peace, responsibility to environment, and enlightened governance. Yet get in office, and its more drone bombings, more war, more drilling, more razing the natural world, more exploitation of humans in what we have designated disposable parts of the globe.
And I am not sure how any of this can be fixed. And that fills me with dread that this great pyramid barge floats the rivers of blood toward nothing good.
We have a presidential race going on in the USA right now. Lucy Parsons once said “Never be deceived that the rich will permit you to vote away their wealth”. And that seems true in that the status quo is near totally immune to change, though your average person is given these tokens like voting to foster the illusion of a voice.
Something like a political race comes too much to resemble choosing a savior. How common the attitude that we just vote for so-and-so, and that is where our part in changing anything ends. Just wait for the lord to overturn the tables of the wicked in the temple.
Yet there are no saviors. And I think the biggest obstacle to change may be apathy. Looking for someone else, some avatar, to do what we should be doing. Revolution isn’t voting for an aging socialist in a corrupt system. Revolution is how you raise your kids, what you are doing in your community, how you treat your spouse, how you honor the land you exist on, how you treat the lowly in society, and how you project these values outward, and demand the institutions you are a part of and the people who represent you live up to these values.
Nothing effective starts from above. Everything with the slimmest hope comes from below. Transform everything. Start with yourself, gather a community, keep going far as you can. Build movements, rather than gather around another savior avatar every election cycle, who will not, and cannot do everything they promise and you hope for.
How can consciousness, justice, equality, compassion, education, care for persons and planet became as infectious as apathy, injustice, inequality, cruelty, ignorance, and viewing everything and everyone as disposable? How can the former come to replace the latter until the former is normalized?
I’m not sure how we get there, but observing this land from Atlantic to Pacific coast, I think this is the needed movement.
An old philosophy professor of mine was fond of Procrustes from Greek mythology and liked to tell the Procrustes story to illustrate a point:
Procrustes was said to be a bandit with a den on Mount Korydallos. Meeting every passerby, he would offer them the hospitality of allowing them to sleep in his own bed. Yet there was a catch. Anyone too tall had to be amputated until they fit the bed perfectly. Anyone too short had to be broken with a hammer and stretched until they filled it out.
In philosophy, a Procrustean bed refers to the error of stretching all evidence to conform to a pet theory. I’m sure nearly everyone has had the experience of running into a zealot, who is utterly enamored with some system of ideas. And nothing is allowed to exist outside that system to the zealot, or count against the system. Even what refutes the system becomes reinterpreted, becomes stretched into supporting it.
That is a Procrustean bed. If too short, you must be broken until your dimensions fit the ideal perfectly. If too tall, you must be chopped until your proportions are exact to the ideal.
The typecasting of Native American artists reminds me too of Procrustes and his bed. Stereotype tends to be the standard of measurement.
Native artists are often judged by how much they live up to romanticized notions of shirtless savages chasing the buffalo under orange and purple sunsets. Commercialism, rather than anything culturally intrinsic, often drives the prevalence of the stereotypical in Native American art. Stereotype is what sells. Stereotype is what outsiders with romanticized misconceptions want to write checks for.
And I am not saying there is no place for the familiar in Native art, or that all old motifs should be razed in a discard pile. I think tradition, and artistic traditions can be beautiful. I am not saying that a painting of a buffalo or an eagle cannot be moving. If as a Native artist, buffalo running the plains, and eagles soaring through the badlands, are what you love and want to portray, I am casting no shade in that direction.
Yet what I am saying is that when Native Americans are limited to stereotypical expressions, it is like the full extent of our humanity is denied. Room should exist for a Native artist to go off the stereotypical script.
Perhaps a Native artist wants to make something that does not immediately present itself as a ‘Native’ piece. Perhaps a Native artist wants to create something, without having to first apply the filters of stereotype, old motif, familiar iconography, commercially comfortable symbolism.
We are so much more, as artists, as musicians, as writers, as people, than the stereotypes that pigeon hole us. Like Procrustes, the popular conception of Native Americans tends to cut off a few inches, or stretch a few limbs, to make sure we fit a preconception of what Native American is.
Native American art is always changing, since Native American culture itself is always evolving. We are not dead. Our artistic traditions are not dead. And that is why I reject the essentialism, the notion that anything after a certain cut off point in history should be disqualified. We are alive. We never stopped evolving as a culture, and we never stopped interacting with and interpreting the world as artists. Native American art is not some dead piece of taxidermy, embalmed forever in one era, but something alive, well, growing and breathing.
If we’re ultra purists, and disallow this evolution, in art, and in culture, then the only things admissible as true Native American art are relics of history. A person would have to go back before European contact, and look at perhaps a deer skin drum, or a winter count drawn on a buffalo hide, to find true Native American art.
Not even those paintings of buffaloes, or our beadwork, or star quilts, would count, because they probably incorporate modern techniques and materials, even if the subject matter is retro Native American.
A lot of those buffalo paintings are made from pastels purchased at the local Hobby Lobby. A lot of that beadwork is made from things a person could buy at any Walmart. And I’m not saying that is a bad thing. To the contrary, I see no problem with any of that. It is all a natural evolution. It is where many of us find ourselves, at the crossroads of the collision of worlds. It is real. It is subversive in a way. Keeping tradition alive in new mediums we adapt ourselves to.
Native American culture is a living, growing thing, rather than something locked in one particular era of history. So Native American art lives and grows also, taking influence from trends and techniques outside the culture, learning to interpret itself through new modes of expression, while at the same time often honoring its roots and traditions.
This is ok. It is ok to be Native and make music with a guitar, or rhyme over a beat. It is ok to be Native, and paint or craft with modern materials. It is ok to be traditional, and create around traditional things. It is ok to venture beyond the traditional, and create in non-traditional modes. It is ok to do both, and at different times, for different reasons.
(It is my intent to offend no one with this, but merely push against a closing of the mind I commonly encounter when talking of Native American art.)