Sitting and watching the first real snow of the season, my mind drifts back a number of years to a sunny prison courtyard at a State Prison in South Dakota. I recall my anxiety about approaching the prison grounds, wondering what it would be like on the “inside.” The group I was with was focused on “Learning Nonviolence with the Lakotas.” We were visiting the prison to hear from a couple of inmates about their experience of trying to live nonviolence in the prison milieu.
Needless to say, we were only given access to the outermost areas of the prison campus. We entered the courtyard and two young men arranged some picnic tables so that our group could sit more or less in a circle for conversation with them.
We listened as they told their stories . Both had been tried and sentenced for crimes that would have received much lesser sentences and perhaps probation if they had been white. But they were not. They were Native American. They told stories about how long the process had been to be able to have a Sweat Lodge and a Medicine Man available to them in prison so they could practice their spiritual lives and begin to heal the deep wounds of racism.
This all happened a lot of years ago. Many of the details of their stories are lost to me now, but one story vividly remains in my memory.
One of the young men told the story of being a young boy and asking his grandfather “Why are white people the way they are?” referring to his experience of white prejudice and racism and indignity at the hands of white citizens and local bureaucrats in his brief life span.
His grandfather answered: “They have lost their drum, they have forgotten the dance, and they do not know where the bones of their ancestors are buried.”
Those words and the truth and wisdom they convey have stayed with me. As I continued on my own spiritual path, I kept searching for what the metaphors might mean and gradually they became clear.
We white folk have lost our drum. We have become disconnected in so many ways from the rhythm of the heartbeat of Mother Earth. This disconnection is what allows us to act in rapacious ways against the earth, to mine and drill and frack and deforest, and over-fish and pollute without regard to how deeply wounding this is to the fragile integrity of this planet.
We have forgotten how to dance - - how to move about in shared space with grace, taking each other into account, respecting one another’s dance style, cooperating to create beauty. We have forgotten that moving together in dance teaches us how to move together in life - - how to cooperate for the common good - - how to live in response to the deep music of life. Instead we move in isolation and non-cooperation. We disregard the beauty of another’s dance moves and avoid learning new steps and rhythms. Indeed we work very hard at eliminating the diverse beauty of the dance of life when the steps are unfamiliar.
We don’t know where the bones of our ancestors are buried. So many of us of us can’t go back more than 2 generations, 3 at the most, when we try to tell our kids their family history. Without the deep connection to “the bones of our ancestors” we become uprooted and ungrounded. We lose a strong and healthy sense of who we are. We are a nation of immigrants. Our forbears, at some point in our history, came from elsewhere. When we don’t know where the bones of our ancestors are buried we lose our own history, our own sense belonging to a great stream of life. As ungrounded and rootless people without a firm grasp on our own stories, we find threat to our fragile sense of ourselves where none exists. Everyone becomes “the other.”
My mind often goes back to the lesson learned in that prison courtyard. Those two young men were strong and free in ways that we as white folk may never understand. They owned their drum, cherished its meaning, and cared for it with deep respect. They danced with respect to heal themselves and the planet. They honored their ancestors and could sing and recite their family history going back 7 generations. They knew who they were.
As we move into the fear-filled uncertainty of 2017, may we spend time searching for the drum we have lost. May we honor the rhythms and the heart beat of the earth and cease wounding her. May we begin to learn how to dance with grace again. May we search for and find “the bones of our ancestors” - - fleshing out our own stories so we can see how they blend with the stories of the rest of humankind.
A prison courtyard seems like the last place to look to find hope, but there it is in the story of a young boy and his grandfather’s wisdom: find the drum - - learn the dance - - re-collect the bones of our ancestors - - and learn to live in the world in greater peace.