Because it’s all still happening

I am both surprised and not surprised at how many white friends and acquaintances have avoided seeing the acclaimed movie, Killers of the Flower Moon.  They report some variation of— “I don’t want to watch the violence, it makes me too uncomfortable…”  And I encourage them with some variation of—“Maybe it’s our turn to be uncomfortable, to witness the real history we are standing in. Maybe we need to educate ourselves so we can have a different conversation, because it’s all still happening.”

Image from movie poster and trailer posted on-line.

Killers of the Flower Moon is a culture-shifting piece of work; like Apocalypse Now changed the view of the Vietnam War, and Schindler’s List, presented the Holocaust in one agonizing unraveling story, or Going After Private Ryan showed ordinary men rising to extraordinary sacrifice. Each of these films is violent, message-driven, ambiguous in outcome, heroic and villainous: classics.

Years ago, I went to see Shindler’s List on a Christmas Day when I had no other plans and was hanging out with Jewish friends. We had lunch at a Chinese restaurant, and then went to a late matinee. Three hours later we emerged in total silence to walk past a long line of mostly Jewish people waiting to get in. They looked in our faces and saw that we were stunned and mourning. We looked at their faces and saw their determination to endure being shown the horrors of their ancestral story. Out of the silence, people began to recite the Kaddish—prayer for the dead. As the lobby echoed with this ancient lament, I learned that we can experience one another’s difficult stories as an act of spiritual allyship.

It was in that spirit of willingness to know something I did not want to know, and to reckon with my relationship to this history, that I watched Killers of the Flower Moon. First in the total submersion of a darkened theater, and again with several friends on a large screen TV on an afternoon when we could stop and take a breath, sit outside a few minutes, talk with one another, and then go back to finish the tale.

Whidbey sunset– nature watches over us.

You may be carrying enough trauma or sorrow that seeing this movie is not appropriate. Please take care of yourself first and foremost.  I have found my dives into the interviews, now archived all over the internet, to be as interesting as the film. Lily Gladstone, who portrayed Mollie Burkhart, the Osage wife of Leo DiCaprio’s character, has beautifully centered the Native narrative and elucidated Native issues for a white audience.

Tantoo Cardinal, who plays the mother of Mollie and her sisters, said, “I grew up in Northern Alberta among the tar sands. I know what happens when the oil industry doesn’t want to be messed with. And I know the greed that has overcome this world until this land, North America, belongs basically to business. I’m delighted people are being educated about what my ancestors lived through—and we live through it now. …People think the movie is hard, but it’s gentle compared to the actual experience of colonialism and genocide and the abuse our cultures have gone through.”

Image from Native Hope website.

Interestingly, May 5th (Cinco de Mayo), also links Holocaust Remembrance Day and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Day. Of these three, MMIW,or MMIP(oeple) is perhaps the least known, but through organizations like NativeHope.org  we can educate our-white-selves to the realities of Indigenous suffering and honor the persistent vulnerability and resilience of Indigenous communities. Murder is the #3 cause of death for Indigenous women

One story that touches close to my heart is the hit-and-run death of Mika Westwolf who was killed alongside Montana Highway 93 on the Flathead Reservation, walking home late at night on March 31, 2023. I have connection to her extended family and have been brought deeper into their story. What it takes for Indigenous families to get justice is a courageous capacity to channel their outrage, and expose their private grief to media attention.

When Popular Information ran the story, and Amy Goodman picked it up for Democracy Now, the death of this young woman and the tragedies of many Native families came to white-eyes attention. The woman who hit her has the last name White, and her little children are named Aryan and Nation. The combination of vehicular homicide, white supremacy, and hate-crime brought the FBI into the case.

It is Mika’s story that opened my heart to this issue. It is the courage of her mother, her grandmother, her extended family and the devastation of those who loved her that makes me determined to stand alongside their spiritual fierceness. Knowing is the source of acting. Caring is the source of reckoning.

Image from MikaMatters.com website

Crises of injustice tumble into each other. I see ever more clearly that when we do not address the hard work of restitution, violence rolls from one generation to the next, from one group of people to the next. If I start listing all our crises, it’s overwhelming. Desperate immigrants seeking safer places, college campuses roiling with protest and police, wars grunting on in horror. Today, I am holding the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People in my heart… because I can, because I am willing to stand alongside their pain. Today I have a candle lit for Mika, because Mika Matters.

Perhaps this is not where you are called to put your heart… but I hope you will put it somewhere in the sorrows and needs of the world. And if you are the one who is suffering, that you will reach out and ask for what you need. May we continue to grow, to look out for each other, to bear witness when we cannot fix and to fix what we can, because it’s all still happening.

Thank you for reading these words and sitting in this story with me. Thank you for letting Mika come to the edge of your heart, even for a few moments.

Please scroll down these comments–especially to the one from Kim, part of Mika’s family. Think of Mika’s mother, one week before Mother’s Day, giving two speeches about MMIW, one at the University of Montana, Missoula. There is wisdom in the circle as we listen to one another.

 

Lily Gladstone’s next movie is Fancy Dance about a family dealing with the disappearance of Lily’s character’s sister. It starts streaming on Apple+ in late June.

 

 

The Fifth Grade American Songbook

It is 1956-57, and I am in fifth grade at Beacon Heights Elementary, a blond brick school building poised over highway 55 at the edge of Minneapolis, Minnesota. The playground runs alongside and out back. We have already learned that in case the Russians drop an atomic bomb we are not to look down this highway toward the Foshay Tower, which at 32 floors is the tallest building between Chicago and Seattle. We are so proud. Little kids, all of us a cohort born in the first year of the postwar baby boom. Little white kids, unconscious of our whiteness, our privilege, or of the embedded injustices of our country. We won the War. Everything is okay now. We are so proud.

Mrs. Thompson’s 5th grade class. I can still name most of these children. I was engaged at the time to both the Elliot twins.

The bell rings, we stand by our desks. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

At age ten, I do not know how demanding these words actually are, or what a commitment they need to require of me my whole life. I am still learning.

Fifth grade is the year I learned to sing. The district hired a music teacher and as soon as Miss Purdy arrived at our door we put aside other work and whipped out our song books. When I Google this to jog my memory, there it is: The American Singer, a hard-cover red book compiled in 1944. I can feel the heft of it in my now aged hands. Songs to stir hearts and minds of little children, songs that roam my mind still today: an entire repertoire of folksy. innocuous, patriotic, supremacist, Judeo-Christian tunes, designed to create a country of white children who share common harmonies.

Illustration inside the front flap.

This presumption was everywhere around me and I want to examine its influence–then and now. I have ordered a copy so that beyond the few pages I could capture with screenshots, I can explore what was planted into my mind about whiteness, American-ness, and the races and ethnicities that created “one nation, under God, indivisible” so that I can continue to work toward “liberty and justice for all.”

Page introducing Indian songs. Underlined words were on the spelling test.

I believe this is a journey of un-enculturation that white Americans need to undertake. It is shocking, in terms of today’s sensitivity to diversity and inclusion, to see the happy illustrations of all white children. Everyone looks like “me” and the portrayal of “them” is distant and faraway. (Indians, for example, are spoken of in the past tense and Mrs. Thompson never informs us we live on traditional Ojibwe territory, or that there are 11 tribal nations in the state.)

Democracy is a process of continual updating. When this country was founded, it appropriated democratic ideas from the Iroquois Nation, held slave-holding signers to the Declaration of Independence and early Presidents in high regard, forbid women and minorities from voting. We have been updating our understanding of America from 1776 to now—and we need to continue. Updating democracy is necessary to civility and civilization. We cannot réestablish outmoded models of whiteness and should not try to preserve supremacist privilege, but find the courage to open our hearts to the transformation that is now upon us and take up this essential task of revisioning America.

Kate Smith and movie orchestra

Beyoncé and friends and estimated 1.2 million citizens, the largest public event ever held in DC.

I offer renditions of two of our most revered ballads. The first is Kate Smith in 1943 singing the new song “God Bless America,” written and released in World War II, and the second is Beyoncé singing “America the Beautiful” at President Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. One represents America then, and the other America now. Kate Smith’s America wasn’t horrible, it was just totally white. Not everyone was white then: and certainly not now. I pray we can claim the beauty of who we are as a nation of myriad people.

We are all choosing right now: choose carefully. Democracy is trying to update itself. There is fear and backlash, as there has always been. Our essential task is to go forward anyway until we discover an inclusive harmony that makes America beautiful for everyone.

Let’s lift every voice and sing! VOTE!