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Excerpt from Songs of the Dead

Ancestors (p. 164)

From chapter "Miracles"

I fall through time, see something not so miraculous, unless perhaps from the perspective of God. I’m sitting by Latah Creek. There is no life. No trees. No grasses. No shrubs. No fish. No flies. No gnats. No insects at all. The water still flows, though over rocks free of algae. The sun still shines. I cannot believe it is the same sun. I cannot believe it is the same water. Maybe it is not. The stream is as dead as everything else, though its body still flows.

I know what I’m seeing. I’m seeing the future. I’m seeing the end point of this culture. I’m seeing the final victory of God.


I don’t know whom to ask for help. But I keep thinking about a line I read in The Barbarian Conversion, that one of the church’s necessary tasks was to cause people to stop relying on the assistance of their dead ancestors and to rely instead on God. That shift, I think, is everything. For a place-based people the dead and the land become increasingly intermingled. That this is true physically should be obvious. But it is just as true spiritually, emotionally, and experientially, insofar as there is a difference. A reliance on the dead thus means a reliance on the land. No people who rely on the dead—who rely on the land—could destroy the land, could disrespect both the land and the dead the way we do.

In order for God to enlist people to help Him destroy the life that terrifies Him—to help Him create stasis—it is imperative for Him to get them to transfer their loyalty from the dead and the soil over to Him and His timeless, placeless, changeless heaven.

It became clear to me, then, that I would need to reverse the process my more recent ancestors had undergone when they converted from land-based religions to Christianity. I would try to speak to my ancestors. But it would have to be my long-dead ancestors, not the more recent ones. The more recent ones were, after all, wétikos themselves, and thus wouldn’t be able to tell me anything about deep relationships to land, time, or much of anything.

Years ago, long before I’d written any books, I got this strange idea that I could gain some wisdom by interviewing my elders. So I went to old folks homes. The project didn’t last long, because I realized quickly that for the elders to be able to impart wisdom to me they had to have some in the first place. The gaining of wisdom, I realized, is no accident, nor is it something that comes inevitably with age.

Years later, I asked American Indian writer Vine Deloria what, in the Indian perspective, is the ultimate goal of life.

He said, “Maturity . . .”

“By which you mean. . .”

“The ability to reflect on the ordinary things of life and discover both their real meaning and the proper way to understand them when they appear in our lives.

“Now, I know this sounds as abstract as anything ever said by a Western scientist or philosopher, but within the context of Indian experience, it isn’t abstract at all. Maturity in this context is a reflective situation that suggests a lifetime of experience, as a person travels from information to knowledge to wisdom. A person gathers information, and as it accumulates and achieves a sort of critical mass, patterns of interpretation and explanation begin to appear. This is where Western science aborts the process to derive its ‘laws,’ and assumes that the products of its own mind are inherent to the structure of the universe. But American Indians allow the process to continue, because premature analysis gives incomplete understanding. When we reach a very old age, or have the capacity to reflect and meditate on our experiences, or more often have the goal revealed to us in visions, we begin to understand how the intensity of experience, the particularity of individuality, and the rationality of the cycles of nature all relate to each other. That state is maturity, and seems to produce wisdom.”

I didn’t know any of this back when I was visiting old folks’ homes. All I knew was that I was interviewing elders who, to be honest, didn’t have much wisdom to offer me, probably because they themselves had never made the effort to gain it.

So I wanted to contact my ancestors who lived before their conversion to Christianity, with its consequent destruction of their relationship to the land and to their ancestors.

I faced a problem: I had absolutely no idea how to talk to my ancestors. Do I light two candles and stare into a mirror until my eyes blur and I see the faces of those who came before? Do I hire a medium? Do I ask for dreams?

I asked for dreams. Nothing. I looked at the stars and asked. Nothing. I sat beneath trees and asked. Nothing. I held soil in my hands and asked. Nothing. My only hint of anything, and I’m sure this was simply a projection on my part, was a faint voice saying, “I can’t hear you very well. You’re too far away.”

Projection or not, what the voice said was true. My ancestors, the ones whose blood mingled for generations with the same soil, are a half a world away, in Europe, too far away to be able—at least with my inexperience—to help me.