There is a tendency to speak of unpleasant or nasty things in a whisper . . . to speak about things that upset us is done in a whisper . . . to speak of things that embarrass us is done in whispers . . . to speak of that which we do not want to acknowledge publically is spoken in whispers. It is in whispers that we utter that which we hope no one else will hear . . . and, hope that we will never have to explain. In the whisper there is the hope of secrecy. It is with the whisper that we quickly pass over the guilt in hopes that the past is quickly forgotten. In the whisper . . . we hope no one hears or remembers. In a whisper . . . we long to forget.
Sometimes, though, a whisper becomes a shout.
I recently came across a whisper that shouted out. Several years ago I read Neither Wolf nor God: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder by Kent Nerburn. It was a wonderful book written by an author who has written sixteen books, thought I doubt if too many people have read him. Having read that book I was curious when I saw that he had a new book, The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo: A Child, an Elder, and the Light from an Ancient Sky . . . which turns out to be the third in a trilogy . . . of which Neither Wolf nor Dog was the first. The title caught my attention as I am a sucker for anything related to Native American . . . knowing the author raised my curiosity . . . so I bought the book and began reading. The book begins in the soft voice of a whisper that comes in a dream. A terrible secret is revealed . . . and the adventure begins.
What starts as a whisper . . . becomes a shout!
Montana is a land rich in Native American culture, history, and presence. There are eight official tribes recognized by the state of Montana. There are seven official reservations recognized by the federal government. Years ago the legislature of the state of Montana created a constitutional charge to the educators and people of the state that Indian education was a requirement for all students in kindergarten through twelfth grade in all subjects. A part of my job at the university where I work is to provide professional development in Indian Education for All for educators . The Native American culture, history, and presence is a big part of our lives here in the state of Montana. Yet, outside of the glaring “bad news” that popular media likes to report about Indians, most of it is spoken in a whisper.
No one—in particular those of us who are white—likes to talk of the royal treatment that was and continues to be perpetuated upon the Indians. Winners get to write the history books . . . but, they often leave out the perspectives of others . . . especially those who get the short end of the stick. Yet, the whispers become shouts, and what was attempted to be done to the Native Americans of our nations was nothing short of a holocaust . . . the wiping out of a people. From the herding and storing of the Indians on reservations to shipping their children off to boarding schools to indoctrinate them into the “white way” is nothing short of ridding a nuisance with the penalty of death. The whispers are slowly being spoken out loud . . . the truth is beginning to be heard.
Now, I have read about the boarding schools . . . not a place where I would have wanted my children or any children sent to be “educated”. I have read the many treaties that were signed as promises that were broken. I have read a lot of the stories, from both sides, and in the end it is pretty sad how our nation rose up to try and rid our country of the Indian. Having said that, I was not prepared for the whisper that became a shout in Nerburn’s most recent book . . . the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians.
In Nerburn’s book he learns of the asylum for insane Indians as he is searching the resolution of a recurring dreams that disturbs his sleep and peace of mind. It is a part of Native American history he . . . as apparently the majority of Americans . . . is aware of. Yet, it existed in all of its dark, cruel, and inhumane presence in the small community of Canton, South Dakota . . . though it was spoken about in a whisper. Closed in 1934, the main building was razed and eventually the community hospital was built . . . a golf course took up the remaining property . . . and, there are no historical markers acknowledging its existence. Except for a small cemetery pretty much out in the middle of nowhere near the golf course . . . and, that is only acknowledged due the diligent work of Harold Ironshield who lobbied to have the cemetery set aside with reverence in honor of those who died at the asylum. All the records were destroyed. The community refused to speak. Everything was spoken in whispers . . . the hope was to forget . . . to bury it forever. Yet, the truth of the matter is, those who have suffered injustice will find their voices . . . the whisper becomes a shout.
The truth of the matter is that there were no “insane” Indians. Instead the asylum was a warehouse to store unwanted and misunderstood Native Americans. There was nothing about the asylum that worked towards healing and restoration for those who were supposedly insane. The majority of those who were committed to this snake pit died . . . their only release from captivity was to die. To read more about the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians read Pemina Yellow Bird’s penetrating article, Wild Indians: Native Perspectives on the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians; or, read The Hiawatha Diary as neither one paints a pretty picture of the atrocities that occurred there.
Someone once said that history has a tendency to repeat itself . . . that it was not linear, but circular. Our history as a human race . . . reflected through periods of our own nation’s history . . . is one of what psychologist Dr. Wolf Wolfensberger points out as being “death-making”. In simple terms, that which a society does not value is put to death . . . it is removed . . . buried . . . and, whispered about. Wolfensberger points to those groups within society—in particular, those with disabilities, that are not valued as being put into the process of “death-making”. His most poignant example of this is pre-World War II Germany and the Holocaust . . . differentiate, separate, remove, destroy. He is adamant that this still happens today . . . he likes to point this out in the way that the elderly are viewed by society today. He raises some interesting points that should make us all stop and think. Yet, what he describes in his experience and research creates a shout out of the whisper of how the Native Americans have been treated for generations.
What we don’t value . . . we get rid of. Growing up with two siblings with disabilities I witnessed how devalued they were by the communities and society in which we lived . . . segregated education, services, recreation, and now group homes. They were not treated like everyone else . . . and, after my brother was in an accident in which he broke his leg, the doctor refused to surgically repair the leg because, and I quote, “He has never walked and will never walk . . . why waste the time.” This is the start of “death-making”. I have seen the same attitude towards my own son who has a disability. I have seen it in the treatment of those who are in nursing homes. I have heard it in the whispers about people who are not white . . . racially different. There seems to be a whole lot of whispering going on . . . and, it is scary.
The whispers cannot go on. Voice must be given to those who are caught behind and in the whispers. The cycle of history must be broken. The whisper needs to become a shout. People shout to be heard over all the other noise . . . people shout to be recognized and acknowledged. Sadly, though, most of us are more comfortable with whispering . . . it is less offensive. Less likely to piss someone off who might hurt us.
Yet, God also speaks in whispers . . . speaks to us in subtle ways . . . opens our eyes in ways we are not expecting. So it was as I was reading Nerburn’s The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo . . . the whisper became a shout. Softly and tenderly God is speaking to me . . . pleading to me . . . to rise above the whisper . . . to stand up to “death-making” . . . and, to shout out for all of God’s children. God created all of us in God’s own image . . . we are all the children of God . . . God loves us for who God created us to be . . . and, without each and everyone us we can never fully realize God’s dream of wholeness and holiness. Who are we to ignore the will of God? In our voice the whisper can become a shout . . . and, God’s kingdom is that much closer than it was before.