Education, History, and Place

My heart is aching this morning. Actually the last few days. Also the last few days I have awakened at five in the morning with a migraine. I do not doubt the two are connected. My logical, western-thinking mind tells me that a chemical imbalance (maybe something I have been eating or drinking) is causing the headaches. The headaches decrease sleep, increase fatigue, and my mood is affected. Or, it could be quite the opposite. My heart is aching and this is the imbalance which is causing the physical symptoms.

This morning as I idled at a stoplight on the shores of Lake Bemidji the morning sun illuminated the statue of Chief Bemidji. According to the Visit Bemidji web page, he got his name from the lake called Bay-may-ji-ga-maug, meaning a lake with cross waters or a lake lying cross-wise to the general route of travel. His real name was Shay-now-ish-kung, which is the Ojibwe word for “rattler” or “one who makes a jingling sound.” I did not know this until I looked it up when I got to my office this morning. I am grateful there is a statue honoring him, otherwise I would have never known this. I’ve only lived in Bemidji a few months, so I can excuse my ignorance. But it got me thinking about how little we learn about the place where we live and go to school.

I grew up in southern Minnesota, however, and I had never heard of the Dakota War of 1862 until I was an adult. This was an outbreak of violence between the U.S. Army and Sioux that took place throughout settlements in the Minnesota River valley. In the end, 38 Sioux were hanged—the largest mass execution in the history of the United States. I was not a great student so it is possible I missed the Minnesota history lesson in elementary or middle school. I am a much better student of history and place as an adult than I was as a child.

I just finished a book by Dan O’Brien titled The Indian Agent. This is the story of Valentine McGillycuddy who was the first Indian Agent appointed to oversee the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  The narrative perspective is sympathetic to McGillycuddy. He is stuck between his admiration for the prairie and the nomadic lifestyle of the plains Indians and his desire to “civilize” the plains Indians and prepare them for integration into a western, agricultural lifestyle, as he feels that is their only chance for survival as a people. The book ends with the proliferation of the Ghost Dance ceremony that resulted in the massacre at Wounded Knee, which McGillycuddy witnessed. This causes Valentine’s heart to ache. See he was trying to peacefully get the Sioux to assimilate into western ways when instead his heart ached for the loss of the nomadic life that had evolved over thousands of years of co-evolution between the Lakota and their place. This story also put an ache in my heart. By now you probably have diagnosed my aching head and heart as a case of white guilt. Well, that is not it. I am not plagued with guilt over violence and bigotry of the past.

I am bothered by missed opportunities. I live in a country dominated by peoples whose culture did not evolve in the place where they reside. At the same time, there are peoples that have thousands of years of cultural evolution in these places. The missed opportunities that cause my heart to ache are those that have been missed in our “American” culture and education system and the raising of our children, in the understanding of the local ecosystems in which we reside where we have ignored this cultural, ecological, and genetic wisdom accumulated over the millennia. I am not suggesting a return emigration to Europe (and all the other places U.S. citizens come from). But, by elimination of a culture’s way of thinking that evolved in these ecosystems, what have we lost?

Kent Nerburn tells the story of a Lakota elder he calls “Dan” in the book The Wolf at Twilight. In it he quotes Dan speaking to Kent.

“You need to think about this. What if the Creator gave every people something special, something that other people don’t have? What if he put his teachings in different hearts in different ways, like he put different teachings in the rocks than in the animals?

What if your Black Book way had one part of the truth and our Inipi way had a part of the truth and other people had a different part of the truth? How would you look at the world, then? Would you try to kill the ways of other people? I don’t think so, because you’d be killing a part of the Creator’s truth.

It’s the same with learning. Maybe we aren’t the collecting people; maybe we are the listening people. Maybe we can’t take everything apart as well as you can, but maybe we can help you remember how it went together. We are all fingers on the hands of the Creator. We must learn to work together to make this a better world. We must learn to work together to be the Creator’s hands here on earth.”

 It is not just the history of the peoples in these places. It is the places themselves. How much are we ignoring the place where we live—the local plants and animals, weather and ecosystems in favor of nationalized curriculum standards and testing? Children need wild places. Children need time to explore. Children need to see and feel the changing seasons, the seasonal migration of the animals to and from where they reside. Children need to understand the life cycle of not just our own species, but all those that share their space. I wonder about the impact of this lack of a sense of place on our next generation, or even on our current generation. Balance and homeostasis: I think this is what is required to heal aching hearts and pounding heads. 

3 thoughts on “Education, History, and Place

  1. says:

    Another excellent post. Brought tears to my eyes. Speaking of place, when Abby and I returned from our walk this morning we saw several brids in the back yard including Pileated Woodpecker, Blue Jay, Wood Duck pair, Canada Goose, Chickadee, Robins, and a Hooded Merganser. What a wonderful, but cool, spring morning.

    Hope you can get to the woods and fields up there to enjoy spring. Take Linnea with you, she will like it, too. Also, I hope your migraines subside. Looking forward to seeing you this weekend. Maybe we could meet at Blue Monday on Friday morning if you don’t have to get to Faribault too early.

    Love, Dad

  2. stephnannen says:

    I love this, Tim. Thanks for posting. I absolutely agree with your Kent Nerburn quote. I don’t get migraines myself, but my heart aches often for reasons similar to yours. I hope you get feeling physically better soon.

  3. Rollie Greeno says:

    Well written Tim. Made me think and reminded me of some famous ecologist’s thought that if we understand our surroundings we will take better of them. I just returned from a visit with an aunt with cancer and I was grateful of the opportunity to catch up with her and her family, reacquainting myself with her family again. Another benefit of retirement; I have the time to do stuff like that.

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