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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

WHITE MAN

air bellows in ice




It's an awful day outside, about as bad as it gets. 21 degrees, 9 this morning at 8, and it hasn't been above freezing for several days. The snow on the ground has an ice crust 3 inches thick. Now it is snowing such that the air is like fog. The new snow lands on ice, the wind blows it so much you can't tell if it's new snow or snow flying in the wind. What the new snow does is fill in holes I've made in the snow for walking to the mailbox. The car's battery is dead and I didn't leave the headlights on. It's a cheap battery that has been needing a change, and I totally forgot yesterday at Napa. This is at least the half dozenth time I've had to jump a dead battery. I took the cables out of the trunk and put them on the floorboard of the passenger side. That will be their place until I get a new battery.




I have always loved snow until today. Difficult as it is to even stand up in, it might as well be 10 feet deep. The glacier on the north side of my roof fell off last night at 11:30. WHUMP. That dead battery put me in a rotten mood. It's been such a pain. Instead of having posts on top, it has little 3/16 inch nubs to clamp the cable to on the front side of the battery, under this hose and that metal strut such that it takes at least 10 attempts at each nub to get the clamp to hold. Just now called Napa about it to see if they have one for this car with posts on top. I'd have to change the battery cables in the car. This is why I'm not a mechanic. To fix one thing, the next thing and the next thing come up to the point that if I don't have a garage with a lift in it, I can't do anything myself. So I don't. When a neighbor passes I'll get a jump and maybe go drive awhile. I don't know. No need to be in town til Friday afternoon. I may do it that morning. Right now I want to stay inside out of this fierce wind and blowing snow.




That's what I do anyway, so it's not like a change of routine. Reading a beautiful book, Neither Wolf Nor Dog. It's an account by a white man an old Indian on a reservation in presumably South Dakota had his daughter call and ask him to come to see the old man. The old man had read one of the writer's former books and liked the way he wrote about Indians, with some humility. White man drives a thousand miles to see what the old man wanted. Right away the writer is in a culture that has no place for him, a white man. He goes around with the Indian man with tape recorder to record him when he wants to talk for the record. It's role reversal in the extreme. On the rez the Indian rules and he tells white man everything he has to say to white man, the writer a symbol of the whole, much to frustration of white man who has to remind his host that he was asked to come there, didn't do it because he was an Indian wannabe.




They gradually develop a friendship, which it turns out they had all along, just needed to know each other better. One time, the writer, Ken Nerburn, packed his belongings in his car and set out to go home and not even leave notice. He'd had it. As soon as he gets going he blows a head gasket. Car won't go. There he is. He has to go through with it. It turns out the old man is teaching him the Indian way, not the question and answer way. After much torment, the white man gradually comes to see how much he has learned in this association that seemed more like brow beating than teaching. The old man was also working on white man's humility. Put him through a really tough time and when he's had all he can take, the Indian man tells white man he handled it well, he likes him.
Keeps him going back and forth between wanting to leave and wanting to stay to continue the project, all the way along.
Since I first found out about Indians in childhood, I had strong feeling for them. Playing cowboys and Indians with neighborhood boys, I was always the Indian and the others were the cowboys. I had the magic power of coming back to life after getting shot. Indian sayings like, White man speaks with forked tongue, I knew well. I lived among white people and got the forked tongue from parents, church, school and all the adults in my life. Everybody lies to kids, it seems, or seemed to me then. Old man Dan the Indian lays it to the white man. It's like he knows white people better than white people know themselves.
It's a tremendously complex issue between white people and Indians. The Indians have only been lied to, taken from, killed at will, kept down in concentration camps called reservations where the FBI is law enforcement. It brought up in me much that has bothered me over the years of reading about the Indian experience. I've never known any Indians, except a few peripherally, to meet and say hi. When around an Indian or Indians, I feel like they're terribly arrogant toward white people, which is what they say white people are to them. And that's what Nerburn is getting from old man Dan, talked down to to the point Nerburn had to stand up to him and remind him again he is not there of his own volition, he was asked, and, furthermore, he was not there at Wounded Knee, he was not in on any of the massacres of villages killing women, kids and old people. He didn't do any of that. He wasn't living then.
It turned out the old man was wanting him to feel what the Indian felt, to really get it and understand it, to feel it, to know the anger. In hindsight, it's perfectly clear the old man was teaching him by helping him to feel what it is he was setting about to write. It was a hard place to go to. It has caused me to think about my own attitudes toward the Indians. In my heart, I'm all with them. In the arena of everyday life, they're another culture so far away from my own, that although I'm sympathetic and I wish it had been otherwise for them, I can't entertain guilt for the same reasons Nerburn expressed for himself. What was done to the Indians by white man is simply not mine. I will not buy that I am guilty just because I'm white. I don't feel particularly good about my own heritage in the light of Indians on reservations, but, again, I wasn't there. Of course, to the Indian, the white man is the bitterest enemy there ever was. They know that had it not been for liberals back east, they'd have been killed to the last baby. But the white liberals don't get credit for anything but being white, the enemy.
From childhood, I've been sympathetic to people overrun by my culture, like the black people for the most obvious of several. I feel compassion for what they go through and have been through. That I can't stop it does not mean I'm to blame. I can't stop the snow storm, but I'm not to blame. It's this racial sensitivity between people of other races and white people that has caused me over time to stay away from people of other races because I don't care to go through the gauntlet of explaining I'm not like the ones that speak with forked tongue. That tends to twist up into knots and one sinks deeper instead of finding understanding. I feel deeply for the atrocities done to the Indians by the white soldiers. I can't do anything about something that happened over a hundred years ago any more than I can change anything about what's happening in Pakistan now, anywhere in Pakistan. Hail far, I can't even change myself. I can't help it my culture is whiteness. I'm as white as they get; fair skin, red hair. When it comes to dividing up racially, I don't have a choice. I don't like what "my people" did in that place and time, but I still can't find that I had anything to do with it. I will not feel guilt because somebody I don't know, who doesn't know me, expects me to. Still, I'm sympathetic to the Indian cause and would love to be able to help. But, like the old man said, it's theirs to take care of, not mine.




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